Why the developers cry to “end exclusion zoning” is a hoax
PLANNING WATCH – The new mantra of infill property speculators and their lawyers is end exclusion zoning.
They say such zoning changes would promote racial equity, transit use, climate change mitigation, and intergenerational wealth transfer among minority families. On the other hand, I say that these are transparent covers, and the real reason they use the term exclusion zoning is that the existing zoning limits their ability to maximize profits.
This mantra now resonates through the White House, Congresses, state capitols, town halls and editorial pages, with little thought on the long-term consequences. Through exclusion zoning the developers and their allies are focusing on residential zoning laws whose hidden agenda was, they say, the exclusion of minorities by demanding large lots and setbacks. These zoning laws were then bolstered by five other processes, four of which were expressly prohibited by the Supreme Court or Congress.
- Racial and religious restriction alliances that housing sales prohibited to specific groups were prohibited by the Supreme Court in 1948 and the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968.
- Redlining by credit institutions, which would grant mortgages only to specific racial groups in specific neighborhoods, ended in 1968 by the Federal Fair Housing Act.
- Federal government housing programs that discriminate against minorities were banned in 1988.
- Discrimination by sellers that directed potential buyers to specific neighborhoods based on race or religion has been banned in California in 1959 and nationally in 1968.
- Police harassment of blacks and whites that crossed the geographic color line was common practice, including by the LAPD in Los Angeles. Despite mass movements, such as protests in all 50 states against the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, police violence against minorities has evidently continued. Studies reveal it is more common in border areas between predominantly black and predominantly white neighborhoods.
Apart from police violence, these practices are strictly prohibited and rarely appear. The lingering question, then, is what impact do old zoning laws and practices have on the current demographic makeup of neighborhoods in an ethnically diverse city, like Los Angeles, in which city ââcouncil passed most zoning laws 75 to 90 years ago.
Advocates of up-zoning say, axiomatically, that historic zoning laws are responsible for current racial and ethnic patterns. They also claim that the zoning of single-family lots automatically allows apartments, which will reverse the lingering effects of historic zoning laws. They also claim that overzoning promotes equity and the intergenerational transfer of wealth in minority families.
There are a lot of issues with this story. A closer look reveals that zoning, whether enforced by the Biden administration, the California state legislature, or the Los Angeles City Council, does not reverse racism. In fact, if overzoning laws were monitored, the data would reveal that overzoning increases economic and racial inequalities. That is why:
- The zoning increase has not increased and will not increase the supply of low cost housing or increase transit ridership. Indeed, overzoning allows more land uses on existing sites, as well as larger, taller and denser buildings. As a result, property values âârise, enriching existing owners when they turn over or redevelop their plots. Additionally, infill residential buildings require the demolition of existing homes and small apartment buildings, eliminating existing low-cost housing and their long-term carbon. When new McMansions and apartment buildings at market rates finally hit the market, few who can afford to rent or buy them use public transportation. Therefore, expensive housing drives up the price of existing housing and eliminates low-cost housing.
- A recent study by the Brookings Institute looked at neighborhoods in Los Angeles that were originally marked in red to contain African-American communities. In LA, these historic black neighborhoods now lodge 40,000 residents who are black and 580,000 who are not. These huge changes include the movement of blacks to white neighborhoods and Latinos to once segregated black neighborhoods, who are now 70% Latinos. More importantly, these major demographic changes have taken place in Los Angeles without any changes to zoning laws.
- The exclusion zoning mantra distorts zoning laws because all zoning is exclusive. The online Los Angeles Zoning Code Summary makes it obvious. Los Angeles is now divided into 46 zones. Each zone restricts lot size, land use, building and / or storey heights, and yard requirements. Accordingly, the City of Los Angeles legally excludes specific uses, buildings that are on specific heights / floors, and buildings that do not provide specific front, back and side yards throughout its 469 square miles. Even âinclusiveâ zoning, which does not exist in Los Angeles, follows these rules. Inclusion zoning automatically requires low-cost housing in new apartment buildings, but within legal requirements for lot size, heights / storeys, density, and courtyards.
- There is no evidence of supply and demand for overzoning. There is no evidence to support the claim of upper-zone residents that building more housing on the market (eventually) creates more low-cost housing. It is easy to over-build expensive apartments and create a housing glut. It takes place in downtown Los Angeles, Koreatown, Miracle Mile, Hollywood, and Warner Center. But this expensive housing boom hasn’t lowered house prices. After a year and a half of the pandemic and the departure of 100,000 Angelenos over the past four years, houses and apartments are still overpriced. If we go back to expensive housing now for over 25 years, it’s the same story. It’s still expensive.
Even though the case for overzoning collapses when scrutinized, it hasn’t slowed the efforts of elected officials to deregulate zoning, building and environmental laws. Freed from facts and surveillance programs that would reveal their overzoning programs to be a hoax, they rush forward. If they are lucky, the consequences of their madness will become undeniable once they are exposed. Otherwise, the spinmeisters will have to burn the midnight oil to explain why their bosses’ best intentions have gone wrong.
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatch. He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles. (UN4LA) and co-chairs the Greater Fairfax Residents Association. Previous Planning watch columns are available at CityWatchLA Archives. Please send your questions and corrections to [emailÂ protected].). Image: Jason Ford